Chapter 21
The Two Tribes

The Eastern Coast of the Wasteland

"Two brothers fight to the death, leaving their children behind. The children know nothing else but to fight each other and thus the seeds of hatred are sown for all generations. This analogy speaks to me for its relevance to my own family history. It also speaks volumes about many other incidents in history of humanity at large. A fight that started so long ago people can't even remember the reason. Nevertheless, they continue fight because they don't know any other way to live."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark was not expecting to wake up again, but this was not the first time he thought his journey had come to an abrupt end. At first, he wondered if he was back in the Nereidium, but the surface he was lying on was too coarse to be the delicate membranes of the undersea tunnels. It was sand. He could hear the gentle roaring of the surf and smell the salty air. He was on a beach, but where?
The swordsman's body ached as he tried to get up. He hurt all over, but the pain was particularly sharp in his ribs, which had yet to heal from the encounter with Wilde. He did not think anything was broken, but he knew better than to move around too much until he was certain.
As he was checking himself for any injuries, he was seized by the realization that he was not wearing the ancestral gear of the Guardian. He had taken off all his equipment before going to bed. After all, they were not out in the wild, but safe on board a ship. What reason did he have to sleep in full armor with his sword strapped to his side? Now the ship was gone, no doubt at the bottom of the sea, and his inheritance with it.
Taking in the ramifications of his loss, Mark lost the strength to hold himself up. Lying there, alone on the beach, robbed of his family's treasured arms and armor, he cursed his fate. Only as an Elemental Knight could he hope to stand up to Randwulf and his tyranny. What was it all for?
Mark did not allow himself to wallow in self-pity for too long. In fact, he quickly rebuked his weak, self-centered thinking. What about the others? If he survived, surely some of the others were alive as well. Rather than thinking of himself, he should be worrying about them.
In a mild gesture of consolation, he reminded himself that he was still alive and even without the powers of an Elemental Knight, his others skills were still intact. If he had to stand against Randwulf as an ordinary man, so be it. Of course, the Earth Pendant still hung around his neck, so he was not entirely divested of his powers. Above all else, one thing made itself clear in his mind: As long as there is life, there is hope.
Mark looked around to get a better idea of his surroundings. Judging by the sun, he had landed west of Arma, either on the Central Continent or an island off the coast. Looking westward, there was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see, broken up only by the odd cluster of rocks or patch of scrubgrass. The environs did not give him any clues as to which way to go. He did not know whether to head north or south to begin his search. If only he knew which direction the currents flowed, he would have some idea. In the absence of that knowledge, he decided to try his luck going south.
So he would not forget his starting point, Mark was careful to count the paces as he went. After a couple hundred paces, he found the first promising sign, what appeared to be wreckage from the ship. Going a little farther, he saw what looked like a human shape. As he got closer, he realized it was too big to be anyone other than Edward. For a moment, he hesitated. As important as it was to account for everyone, he did not want to find any of his companions dead, even one as disagreeable as Edward.
Edward was lying face-down in the sand, so the first thing Mark did was tilt the Prince's head to the side. He put his hand by the Prince's mouth. He was breathing, but shallowly. The swordsman then began to shake Edward to rouse him, and when that did not work, Mark tapped him on the cheek with the back of his hand. It took a few tries, but the Prince finally reacted. He grimaced briefly before throwing up all over the place.
Mark quickly covered the pool of vomit with sand and swept it away from Edward's face. No sooner had swept the vomit away than Edward threw up again. It seemed the Prince was dead-set on giving Mark a hard time even while unconscious. Putting his consternation aside, Mark wiped away the new pool of vomit just as Edward was coming around.
Edward's eyes opened slowly. Almost reflexively, he started to pull himself up. He broke into a fit of coughing before throwing up yet again. Once he was done retching and coughing, he rolled onto his side, holding his face and looking incredibly ill and miserable.
Mark decided to get Edward's attention. "Edward," he said.
The Prince looked at Mark groggily, wiping his moustache on his sleeve.
"What happened?" he asked.
"It looks like we've been shipwrecked," Mark replied. "Where we are and how many of us survived, I have no idea. Can you stand?"
"Yeah... I think so."
Edward got up with Mark's help, but had trouble staying on his feet. After allowing himself the time to breathe for a few moments, his condition seemed to improve. With Edward mostly recovered, it was time to continue the search for the others.
"We should split up," Mark said. "I'll go north and you go south, say, about five hundred paces. We meet back here, let each other know what we've found and then go out another couple hundred paces. We repeat this a couple times, which will take us out a good mile from here. If there's anything to be found, we're bound to see it by then."
Edward looked rather wobbly. It did not inspire much confidence in Mark.
"Do you think you can handle this?" the swordsman asked. "Maybe I should go out on my own for now and let you rest."
The Prince waved his hand dismissively. "I can handle it," he grunted. He looked around drunkenly. "But wouldn't it be better to wait here?"
Mark shook his head. "We'd never find each other if everyone thought like that. We need to account for everyone as soon as possible. If someone's hurt, there may not be much time to save them."
"If anyone else survived, you mean."
Even while dazed, Edward had a knack for being unpleasant. Mark pushed the thought out of his mind. He had to believe the others were all right. He did not want to think of the alternative.
While Edward stumbled southward, Mark went back the way he came. Given that the first signs of wreckage were fairly close to Edward, it was a decent possibility that Mark was the farthest out, but he did not want to follow that assumption and leave someone behind. By the time he was five hundred paces from where he found Edward, he had seen nothing of interest on the way nor could he see anything promising out in the distance.
He was tempted to go farther out, but he thought it better to stick with the plan. As he got closer to the meeting point, he saw what looked like Edward lying in the distance. Even though his body was hardly in any condition for it, Mark ran to the fallen Prince. He shook Edward vigorously the moment he got his hands on him.
"Edward, Edward!"
Between the shaking and Mark calling his name, Edward came to in short order. He looked around in bewilderment, not much better off than when Mark found him in the first place.
"'At's goin' on?" Edward mumbled.
"It looks like you passed out," Mark said. "I shouldn't have left you by yourself."
The Prince grunted. "Said I was fine."
"No, you're not," Mark insisted. "I'm going to give you some time get back in sorts and then we'll go together to pick up the search."
"'Bout other direction?"
"I don't think there's anything that way. All the wreckage seems to be south of where I washed up. Our best bet of finding the others is to go that way."
Edward did not complain. After a few minutes, he stood up, apparently ready to go. He still was a long way from a full recovery, but at least now Mark would be close at hand if he passed out again. As they followed the shoreline, they found more and more pieces of wreckage. Eventually they came upon the green-clad form of Jill.
Mark put his hand on the archer's shoulder and shook her gently. Her eyelids twitched slightly, the only sign of her waking up before she delivered a sharp kick to the swordsman's ribs. A shockwave of pain swept over Mark and nearly paralyzed him. Were it not for his finely tuned reflexes, the pain would not have been a problem much longer. He narrowly dodged a slash from Jill's hunting knife and intercepted and overhead stab and a left hook in rapid succession.
Fighting back the pain and struggling against the archer's considerable strength, Mark knew her body was practically acting of its own accord. It was a deadly, conditioned response no doubt shared by the other Rowanite hunters. He had to snap her out of it if he wanted to survive much longer.
"Jill!" the swordsman cried. "Get a hold of yourself! It's me, Mark!"
It took a moment for the realization to set in. By then, Jill had become fully conscious and regained control of her senses. She did not show any signs of shock or concern at what she had done, only mild surprise. She did not seem to have any intention of apologizing either. Slipping free of Mark's grip, she stood up, returned her knife to its sheath, and started looking around.
"Where's Sis?" she asked.
"We're looking for her and the others now," Mark said.
Without another word, Jill set her sights to the south and went on ahead of Mark and Edward. The swordsman took it as a sign he was on the right path. Unsurprisingly, Edward made no effort to help Mark up. Jill's kick had hit one or two of Mark's injured ribs and while it may not have caused any significant damage, it was all rather painful, so much that Mark could not keep up his old pace.
Not far from where they found Jill, they came upon their first body among the wreckage. It was one of the crewmen, the corpse already bloated. Mark did not like leaving the body in the open, but the living came first. Once the search was over, he would go back to give the crewman a proper burial.
A ways farther ahead, Mark could see more human shapes. Jill was already there. Even from a distance, Mark could recognize the figure of Sonia sitting on the beach. It looked like she was okay, but what were the other human shapes? Once he got closer, he saw three dead crewmen lying around Sonia, their blood soaking into the sand. It was blood that had been recently spilled.
"Sonia, what happened?" Mark asked.
When his cousin turned to look at him, it did not take much imagination to guess what had happened. Her left eye was a reddish purple, swelling ever so slightly. In her hand she loosely gripped her bloodied sgian dubh.
Mark was taken aback by the sight. "Oh my God, Sonia, are you alright?"
The fencer managed a weak grin. "I'll be okay. I got woken up by five of them. I don't know what their problem was. They just started shouting and hitting me." She held up her sgian dubh. "I imagine they planned on doing worse, but I still had this little guy with me. I got three of them and the other two ran away. I was still too out of it to chase them down, so I thought I'd rest here a bit. Then you and Jill show up. Nice to see I'm not all alone out here."
Mark remembered the look on the crewmen's faces when Sonia mercy killed their mortally wounded comrade. No doubt they sought to avenge what they considered a cold-blooded murder. That did not excuse their actions, but Mark wished he could have been there to intervene before anyone died. Still, at least Sonia was alive and only slightly injured. He was worried nevertheless.
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?"
Sonia nodded. "Yeah, I'll be fine."
The moment she saw Edward approaching, she quickly wiped off her sgian dubh on the pant leg of the nearest crewman, returned the blade to its sheath and stood up. She got up a little too fast, nearly losing her balance, but she quickly corrected it and acted as if nothing was wrong. Apparently she did not want to show any signs of weakness in front of the Prince, who would invariably lord it over her.
"Let's get going," she said.
There was not much point in arguing for Sonia to rest a while longer. There was no doubt she was straining herself to put on a façade of normalcy, but she would only push herself to greater lengths if challenged. Happily, Edward was still too out of it to be very troublesome. It was one thing to be thankful for in all this.
Because he had been focusing on the human shapes of Sonia and her dead attackers, he did not pay much attention to the sizable brown smudge in the distance. It had to be the main body of the ship. It was too big to be anything else. There was a good chance the others were closeby. So far, all of his companions had been found alive. He hoped that would not change.

* * *

Giles sat in the shade of the ship's wreckage, bound hand and foot with some of the rigging. As if the shipwreck was not bad enough, he was given a rude awakening by the survivors of the crew. After getting thrashed around by several crewmen, he was tied up and placed under the watch of two men armed with improvised clubs. He was not alone. The thief Jasper had been given similar treatment. Defying their captors in his own way, Jasper lay upside down rather than sitting upright. It seemed to aggravate their guards, but apparently they were under orders to stay their hands. Apparently the person in charge had something else in mind for the two companions.
The survivors seemed to be preoccupied elsewhere, probably scavenging from the cargo hold. The ship was beached largely intact, lying on its wounded port side. There was plenty of room for them to roam around. If nothing else, it bought time for the two captives before the crewmen did anything worse.
Giles could hear the sound of someone banging around somewhere in the middle decks. Jasper tilted his head in the direction of the noise.
"Sownds loike thayah troyin' tah breyk i'tah th' rewms," he said. "Summun mahs' beh blowckin' th' doah."
One of the crewmen guarding them shouted something, probably telling the thief to be quiet. Giles noticed that Jasper was subtly struggling with his bindings. The guards did not seem to notice, but whether the thief could break free or not was another story.
After a few minutes, the banging stopped and several crewmen crawled out of the ship. One of them stood out from the others in that he had a real weapon, a curved sword thrust in his belt. He seemed to be the leader. Flanked by his gang, he stood in front of Giles.
In broken Bannish, he said, "Call out."
He clearly meant for Giles to draw out whoever had barricaded themselves in their quarters. Surely the intent was to make captives of them as well. It was hard to say what their intentions were--it certainly was not anything good--or why they had turned on their passengers, but the leader had gravely misjudged the pikeman if he thought it would be so easy to get him to betray his comrades.
Giles refused to answer, which angered the leader. He drew his sword and pointed it at his captive.
"Call out," he said again.
Once again, Giles did not answer. This made the leader even angrier. He slapped Giles with the flat of his blade and then started to furiously wave his sword at the ship.
"Call out, call out!"
Giles had no intention of changing his mind. This was the last straw as far as the leader was concerned. Cursing loudly in his own tongue, he seized Giles by the scalp and raised his sword to swipe the head right off his shoulders. What followed happened so fast that the pikeman could scarcely tell what was going on. There was the crack of a whip. A black cord coiled around the leader's swordarm before he was snatched off the ground and sent flying into the forward stairwell. The sword fell out of his hand as he was being away. In the same instant, Jasper's arms were suddenly free. The thief rolled toward Giles, catching the blade in midair and cutting the pikeman's ropes. Giles hardly had any time to react to what had happened and Jasper was already offering him the hilt of the sword.
Giles accepted the sword and stood up to confront the sailors. The moment he was on his feet, the leader's dying screams struck terror in the hearts of his followers. Five more men scrambled off the ship, none of them from the same hole that claimed their leader.
As frightened as they were, the crewmen still outnumbered Giles and Jasper six to one. Two more appeared running toward the group, screaming frantically in their tongue. It took them a moment to realize the standoff between the captors and the two captives, or the fact that Giles was now holding their leader's sword. Before they could react, and possibly decide to rush Giles and Jasper to finish them off, something was tossed out of the stairwell and rolled toward the main group. The second they realized it was the leader's head, the whole lot of them howled in fear and ran away. Whatever danger might await them beyond the beach, it was the farthest thing from their minds.

* * *

Mark saw the cluster of human shapes fleeing from the ship. He did not know what was going on, but he feared the worst. Although he was still hurting from the kick Jill had given him, he ran to the ship. There he found Giles stooping over a severed head and Jasper untying some rope around his ankles.
Mark cried out to them, "Giles, Jasper! Are you okay? What happened?"
Giles rose up to meet the swordsman. "So you're alive after all," he said. "I was wondering who all had survived."
"Are you hurt?" Mark asked.
"Nothing too serious." Giles nodded to the severed head. "I'm sure that would have changed if this hadn't happened."
"What did happen?"
Giles rubbed his shoulder as he talked. "I was woken up to a sound beating, tied up and left here. Their leader wanted me to help lure out some of our companions holed up in the ship." He looked to the ship. "Speaking of which, we should let them know the coast is clear."
Climbing onto the ship, Mark, Giles and Jasper crawled into the stairwell to reach their quarters. With the ship on its side, it was more difficult to move around since the narrow hallways did not offer much clearance and side passages were now long drops. Thankfully, they did not have to go far to reach the room where Teresa and Catherine had been staying, one of the few doors that remained closed. Mark crouched down to knock on the door.
"Is anybody in there?" he asked. "It's me, Mark. The crew has run away. It's safe to come out." Realizing that a barricade was most likely Stefan's handiwork, he switched to Byrnan. "Stefan, you're in there, aren't you? Open up."
Mark could barely hear Stefan's reply, muffled as it was by the door. "How do I know you're not being coerced by those sea dogs?"
"Do you honestly think so little of me, that I'd submit to threats and betray my friends?"
"Yes."
Mark had wanted to entertain the notion that Stefan was getting over the bitterness he held, but it did not seem to be the case. Just as he was trying to figure out how to convince Stefan that it was safe to open the door, Adrienne appeared out of nowhere. Mark could not help jumping a bit.
"Allow me," she said.
With a decisive stomp, she knocked the door off its hinges, following it down as it crashed into the opposite wall. Acting reflexively, not bothering to distinguish friend from foe, Stefan attacked her the moment she landed. He clearly did not have any idea what he was dealing with. Adrienne did not exhibit her powers too blatantly, but that did not stop her from effortlessly intercepting the Stefan's quick strikes, trapping both of his arms and throwing him to the floor. The unexpected reversal was enough to give the stunned fighter pause.
Far less dramatically, Mark climbed down through the open portal. It was not just Stefan, but also Teresa, Catherine and Ignatiy. Although Ignatiy was still curled up, looking as ill as he had at sea, none of them appeared to be much worse for wear.
"Is everyone okay?" Mark asked.
"Yes, somehow," Teresa replied. "It was the most amazing thing. After the ship turned over, the water started pouring in and just as the door gave way, the water should have flooded in and drowned us, but it just stopped, as if we were in a bubble."
"It sounds like Catherine's power," Mark said.
The novice looked at her patient and then back to Mark. "She can do such things?"
"I think the better question is 'What can't she do?'" The swordsman then turned to Stefan. "Stefan, how did you know to barricade yourself in here?"
Stefan answered as he was dusting himself off. "Once we beached, I came down here to make sure Lady Catherine was okay." The fighter eyed Adrienne. "Then the freak tossed Red in here and told me to bar the door. The sea dogs tried to get in, but they didn't have much luck. They must've weakened the door quite a bit for the freak to get in so easily."
Adrienne simply smiled. "I wonder."
Before anyone started to ask any questions, Mark changed the subject. "At any rate, everyone is alive and accounted for. What about our gear?"
"Why don't you take a look for yourself?" Adrienne said.
Because their rooms were located near the middle of the deck, they had suffered little damage. Although two of the rooms had already been opened by the crewmen, they did not have time to carry off any of the group's gear. A few pieces lay scattered in the hallway, dropped when the terrified sailors fled the ship. Mark was exceedingly grateful to be reunited with his ancestral gear. It was a great relief knowing it was not lost to the sea, but the greater relief was the fact that all his companions survived the shipwreck.
A lot of the group's gear was damp from seawater, which ruined a lot of the food in their haversacks. While they spread out their gear to dry in the sun, the group went to work salvaging whatever they could find. There was no hope of the ship ever being seaworthy again and even if it could be adequately repaired, there was no crew to get them back to Gladius and they definitely could not make the journey alone. They did not know where the nearest settlement was or even if there were any settlements nearby at all. It was agreed that their best bet was to follow the coast in search of a port and then barter for passage to Gladius. It would not be easy, but they lacked any better options.
The cargo bay also had the advantage of being located near the center of the ship. The damage it had suffered was relatively light and although it had been fully flooded, most of the crates and barrels were waterproof. Some had been smashed in the wreck, but a good deal remained intact. The cargo bay had a surprising amount of trade goods in addition to the provisions for passengers and crew. Apparently Mael Giric had been under orders to do some trading to offset the cost of ferrying the group.
The first priority was food. They easily salvaged a good week's worth with no small amount to spare. Mark decided to leave the remainder. In spite of all they had done to his companions, he took pity on the crewmen and wanted them to have a fighting chance at survival. Alternatively, if the group had to fall back to the ship for some reason, there would potentially be something to help sustain them.
Once they had stocked up on provisions, the group sorted through the rest of the cargo for anything of value they could use. A successful trade was most likely their ticket to Gladius. There was not much point in taking anything that had suffered much water damage, nor was there any reason to overly encumber themselves. In the end, they struck a decent balance between the weight and the potential value of the goods. If only they could fetch a decent price, they would be set.
The last thing they did was tend to the dead. Because of the actions of some of the crew, several members of the group refused to help. Sonia and Stefan were the only two taking a principled stand. Jill simply followed her adoptive sister's lead, Adrienne was ambivalent as always, and Edward saw an easy excuse not to do something he felt was beneath him. Ignatiy was still too ill to be any help and Catherine was obviously excepted. That left the work to Mark, Jasper, Giles, and Teresa.
Twenty-seven were found dead below decks, apparently killed when the ship smashed into the beach, along with three more bodies on board, including the headless corpse of the survivors' leader. Added to the number were six more bodies found in the vicinity, making the total thirty-six in all. With fourteen or fifteen survivors having fled, that left a fair number unaccounted for, among them Mael Giric. It was nothing short of a disaster.
Once the simple graves had been dug, it was time to start thinking about moving out. However, they had no idea where to go. Following the coast seemed to be a good rule of thumb, but which way to the closest port? North? South? What if they were on a desert island? What then?
The group discussed their course of action for quite some time when Adrienne abruptly fell to her knees, holding her head as if she were in pain. Such an uncharacteristic display caught everyone's attention. Then, just as abruptly, her hands fell to her sides and she stood up. In all truth, it looked more like invisible force was pulling her up. Adrienne's eyes were heavy-lidded, like someone in a trance.
"Mark," she said, "I am borrowing this woman's body for a while. I will guide you to the nearest town."
A shock ran through Mark's system, not just because of what she said but because she said it in Byrnan. Mark looked over to Catherine. Was she really possessing Adrienne?
As if she read his mind, Adrienne (or was it Catherine?) said, "It is me, Mark. After what I did with the ship, is it really a surprise that I am able to do this?" She took a few steps toward the swordsman. "It will not be long before I can use that body again. I was wanting to wait until then, but it has been too long. I hope you will forgive me using this borrowed shape."
Adrienne ran her fingers through Mark's hair, a gesture far too gentle to be the work of the dhampir, drew him close and kissed him full on the lips. There was a collective jaw dropping by the others. Indeed, Mark would have been slack-jawed himself if he was not currently lip-locked with the puppeteered Adrienne.
"L-Lady Catherine!" Stefan sputtered in confused outrage, looking back and forth between Catherine and Adrienne.
While it was true that Catherine had kissed him before, it was never like this. Then again, Catherine was known to have a capricious streak to her. It was all so hard to believe, but it was even more difficult to think straight on the receiving end of such a long and passionate kiss.
Adrienne (Catherine?) finally let him go. She then smiled. Once again, it was something far too gentle for the dhampir. Even her oddly dissonant behavior at the banquet in Scotia did not come close to this. Was it really Catherine in there?
"Shall we go?" Adrienne asked, switching to Everardian. "We are in desert land and the midday heat is passing. If we go now, we should reach shelter before the heat overtakes us." She began to walk away. "And do not forget my body. I will have need of it soon."
A dumbfounded Mark looked to the others. "I guess we follow Cather--, uh, I-I mean, Adrienne."
"Wait, wait, wait," Sonia interrupted. "Just what the devil's going on?"
Her confusion was perfectly understandable. As not only Sonia but most of the rest of the group did not speak Byrnan, they could not have understood the first part of the conversation. Even hearing it for himself, Mark was thoroughly bewildered himself.
The swordsman scratched his head. "Uh, Catherine's taken over Adrienne's body to lead us to the nearest village."
"Rubbish!" Edward balked. "Who would believe such a thing?"
"There's no way the Darkling could know Byrnan," Giles said. "She little more than a child when she was imprisoned in Darkwall. I don't claim to know much about mindwalkers, but how else do you explain it?"
Indeed, Adrienne's completely uncharacteristic behavior left them wanting for another explanation, but none were forthcoming. For those who had not witnessed Catherine's power, it was not an easy thing to accept. Nevertheless, it was the best explanation available to them, so they followed, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
As the sands of the beaches gave way to the sands of the desert, Mark was quite certain they had landed in the Wasteland, the most desolate of the Nine Deserts of the Central Continent. Civilization had made few inroads into these lands and any village was a preciously rare find. Still, it would be but one step in a brutally long journey.
Even though the midday heat had passed, it was still brutally hot. Those who did not have cloaks to shield them from the burning sun had to improvise from what they had. Their supply of fresh water was being drained faster than they had hoped, which made finding the village all the more urgent.
The intent was to travel through the night in order to reach the village before the midday heat of the following day. However, they did stop for about an hour to rest. During that time, Mark approached Adrienne, who was keeping her distance from the rest of the group.
"Are you really Catherine?" Mark asked in Byrnan.
Adrienne glanced at him with only passing interest. "Of course not, you silly fool," she replied in Everardian.
"So you weren't possessed by Catherine at all?"
"Nope," the dhampir replied. "Did you like my little performance? I'm rather pleased with it myself. Both you and her pet dog were convinced. I should've been in the theater. I really think I missed my calling."
"If it was all an act, then how do you know Byrnan?"
She pointed to Mark. "I know it because you know it. It's in your blood. All your thoughts, all your memories. Of course, I could tell there was something between you two just by the way you look at her." She grinned. "You two were just adorable back when you were kids."
There seemed to be no limit to Adrienne's callousness. She had taken it to a whole new level, stealing his memories and then using them to manipulate him and the others. To think that he had almost been fooled completely...
"Are you disappointed I'm not the real thing?" Adrienne asked. "You should thank me. Now she's going to have to do a lot more when she wakes up to top me."
Her crass comments only made things worse. Did she have no conscience at all? It was so galling Mark could barely see straight.
"Now, now," she chided, "don't get angry at me. I've saved all of you from brainlessly dithering all day."
"So there really is a village?" Mark asked.
Adrienne tapped the bridge of her nose. "I caught a whiff of their blood. It was faint, but I knew there were a bunch of humans gathered in one place. How else was I going to explain it?"
"Don't ever do it again," Mark said sternly.
The dhampir met his words with sarcasm. "Oh, did I hurt your feelings? So sorry."
"I mean it."
"Remember what I told you about crossing me," Adrienne said, recalling her threat from the last time he had confronted her. "You're too damned good for your own good and it's going to get you in trouble one day. Or rather, it's going to get you into even more trouble than it already has." She turned away. "Now, rest up while you can. You're lucky I'm letting you rest at all. It'd be entirely in character for me to keep on pushing. If there's one thing I've learned about that mindwalker, it's that she likes to have her way."
While the latest offense was not in the same class as the time she let all those Scotian guards die, it stung much more sharply. Nevertheless, he would continue to keep Adrienne's secret and play along with her act. Absently, he wondered if Catherine had not given her tacit approval for Adrienne's manipulation. He chastised himself for even thinking of blaming her, but given her intermittent demonstrations of her power, he was starting to wonder just how limiting Brenok's curse really was.
Once their rest time was over, the group moved on and kept going until they found the village just before dawn. The heart of the village was dominated by a white six-stepped mastaba that rose above the cluster of low-lying hovels. A dilapidated wall of plastered mud bricks surrounded the villages and was notably broken in several places, offering a rather poor measure of defense. The few palm trees scattered throughout the village was the first sight of green the group had seen since they left Arma.
Before they entered the village, they surveyed it from afar. While the sun was still low, there was a buzz of activity in and around the village, giving them their first good look at the locals. The people all had dark, leathery skin and were lean to the point of emaciation. They were clad in nothing more than the simplest wrappings of a coarse white fabric and their heads were shaved, man and woman alike. Only a handful of men were armed, their weapons nothing more than crude spears and clubs. They did not seem to pose any significant threat, but it was no reason for the group to lower their guard.
As they listen in on the scattered pieces of conversation exchanged among the villagers, Edward looked to Mark. "Do you understand what they're saying?"
"Not a word," Mark replied.
The Prince turned to Stefan. "What about you, foreigner?"
Stefan growled a curse in his old Romany tongue. He must have been in an especially bad mood to break his pledge to speak nothing but Byrnan. After yesterday's events, it was none too surprising.
"It'll be difficult to communicate," Mark noted, "if it's even possible at all, but the food and water we salvaged won't last long. We don't know how far it is to the next village and it'd be nice if we could get them to tell us where we can find a port."
Looking at the villagers and then at the others, Sonia frowned.
"There's no way we can expect to blend in," she grumbled.
Edward shrugged as he rose from the dune they were using as cover.
"There's no helping it. We have to go, right?"
"Wait," Giles said, putting his hand on Edward's pauldron. "We should at least cover up our armor. There's no point in provoking them."
Following the pikeman's advice, they donned the improvised cloaks they were wearing yesterday. Not only did it hide their armor but also minimized the visibility of their weapons. Other than that, there was little else they could do to prepare themselves. All that remained was to take their chances with the locals.
The guards at the gate did not seem very dedicated to their work. They sat with their backs against the wall and their spears resting on their shoulders. None of them made any effort to stop the group from passing. The more they saw of the town the more they realized just how desperately poor it was. The prospect of getting any portion of its limited resources seemed slim at best.
Along the main thoroughfare, people who appeared to be merchants sat under awnings with their wares spread out before them. All eyes in the town were upon the group and they could not help feeling more than a little self-conscious. Mark approached what he thought was the water merchant and the toothless old man eyed him suspiciously. As the saying goes, 'Money talks,' so Mark placed a few of gold coins in front of the merchant. The merchant looked at them but did nothing, leaving Mark to fear that their mix of Arman and Gladian currency would be worthless to these people.
Mark was about to try offering some more when a woman shrieked. Startled, he turned to see a middle-aged woman standing in the middle of the street pointing at Teresa and screaming in the native tongue. People poured out of their dwellings to find out the cause for the commotion. Before long, the entire town, which had far more people than they had initially anticipated, was frantically screaming along with the woman. Although Mark didn't know what was being said, he could tell that the same phrase was being repeated over and over again. The temperament of the crowd became increasingly hostile as they began taking up arms and brandishing their weapons in a display of aggression.
"This looks bad," Sonia commented grimly. "We need to leave... now."
No one questioned her assessment. Forming a defensive ring but not drawing their weapons, they moved toward the gate very slowly. Seeing their retreat, the crowd was grew bolder and began to haltingly advance forward. Inch by agonized inch, the group drew closer to the gate, but all it would take is one person to rush forward for the entire crowd to overrun them.
Suddenly, someone raised a loud cry and the crowd broke into a full charge. Sonia was quick to react, raising a wall of fire to halt the charging mob. Without looking back, the group ran through the gates as fast as they could. The guards outside were roused by the sight of the fleeing outsiders and one of their spears shattered against the plates of Edward's armor as he passed the gates. Edward twirled around and pulled out his mace, ready to bash in the man's skull, when Sonia yelled at him.
"Forget about him, you fool! Just run!"
It was fortunate for Edward that he complied, for the frenzied villagers were jumping through the wall of fire, completely oblivious to personal injury. Although it was still early morning, the temperature was quickly rising and they had no chance of outrunning people acclimated to the desert with virtually no encumbrance. They were unexpectedly saved by a loud chanting from within the village. Obeying the call, the crowd immediately broke off its pursuit and turned back.
Though the heat could easily be the death of them, they considered the threat of the villagers returning to be more severe. For two days they trudged through the desert, resting as little as possible. They did not think they were being followed, but the desert played tricks on their eyes and none of them were quite sure if the waves in the distance were simply an illusion or the enemy advance. No one dared to take any chances.
It was early in the morning on the third day and they were not sure how much longer they could go on. Their supply of water, which was supposed to last a week, was nearly spent. So far, no one had succumbed to the heat, but it was only a matter of time. They were exhausted from a lack of rest and the harsh climate. Their stamina was all but gone when Jill claimed to see trees less than a furlong away. It seemed so impossible that few believed the hawkeyed huntress in spite of her usual reliability. Only when everyone agreed on seeing the spot of green in the distance did they dare to believe. Mark knew what such places were called. It was an oasis, a rare island in the seas of sand. The spirits of the group were heightened by the prospect and they spurred each other onward. They pushed themselves beyond their limits and were rewarded for their efforts with the shade of a small palm grove and the water of a shallow pool.
Some of the palms bore clusters of dates. Mark had only read about in books, but they were completely alien to the others. Mark had to try the first one before anyone else was convinced they were suitable for eating. Once it was proven that the dates made good food, they picked as much as they could to fill their food pouches and nearly drained the pool filling their water skins. Hopefully it would be enough to last them until they found a place more amicable than the village.
That night, they started moving again, continuing to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the village. While they were on the move, Catherine spoke to Mark's mind.
I apologize for not speaking up sooner. Given the state I am in, I pushed myself a little too far holding back the entire sea and running the ship aground.
"You make it sound like it wouldn't have been much trouble if you were back to normal."
I would have only needed an hour or so to recover. It is, after all, only the sea.
Only the sea, she says.
Water is more flexible than earth. It is far more difficult to move mountains, for instance.
"You've moved mountains?"
Not yet. I have not had the reason to, but I understand the principle. At any rate, had I been in full control of my powers, I would have been able to make a softer landing. However, considering how the crew turned on you, my clumsiness may be a blessing.
Mark could not help being offended at her words. "Thirty killed is a lot of people to be so blithely dismissed as mere clumsiness."
I chose my words poorly. Do not be angry. I try to avoid any needless deaths, but my highest priority is the survival of you and your companions.
"I would rather not live on the corpses of those sacrificed for the sake of my survival."
I know you would not. That is why I must do what you are unwilling to do. I know how much you loathe such methods, but they are unavoidable. Far more people would die if not for the sacrifices made.
This attitude was nothing new for Catherine, but it was hard to listen to it while Adrienne's deception was still fresh in his mind. Was there no limit to the cruelty of such a cynical sense of utility?
Think of me what you will, but try not to judge Adrienne too harshly. You cannot begin to imagine what she has been through. Her experiences have warped her, but in spite of what she says, she is in essence a good person and is looking out for your survival as much as I am.
"Is that why you let her do what she did?"
I was in no position to interfere at the time, but I do not disagree with her choice. She cannot reveal her true nature and you would have lost valuable time trying to decide what to do. In all truth, I found it rather amusing, but I regret that your feelings were hurt in the exchange.
Mark had his doubts about her sincerity, but nothing would come of it. Rather than dwell on the uncomfortable subject, he veered the conversation in another direction.
"Do you know what happened at the village?"
I was only able to get a passing glance, but they have a deep-set fear and hatred of the sign of the cross. It is an ancient enmity, etched into their collective consciousness many generations ago.
Mark looked over to Teresa and saw the moonlight reflect off the silver cross that hung from her neck. That was what set the village into its frenzy?
They will be coming for us, but we should be safe if we keep moving. There is another village farther south, yet I fear they will be no more hospitable. I am almost free of this spell. Wait just a little while longer.
Any worries about the villagers or questions about her sentiments were swept away with the news of her impending recovery. Having the full range of her powers at their disposal would be a great benefit to the group and their fight, but that was hardly the reason his heart leapt at the thought of her breaking the spell. Was the day truly so close at hand?
In spite of Catherine's warning to keep moving, Mark was overruled by the majority of the group, who stopped around noon to ride out the midday heat. Although it was a rather tight fit, they were able to construct an adequate shade to accommodate everyone. While they were resting, Jill spotted something on the horizon. It did not take long to realize what was approaching.
Just as Catherine had warned, the villagers had come for them, only this time they were fully armed and organized like an army. There were easily three hundred in total, maybe more. Even under the best conditions, it would be suicidal to challenge them in a direct confrontation.
The group wasted no time breaking down the shade and moving out. Because the heat would quickly overwhelm them if they ran, they had to settle for walking quickly. As the villagers kept a steady marching pace, the group managed to maintain their distance for a good mile, but the very real threat of the desert people eventually overtaking them weighed heavily in their minds.
It occurred to Mark to try the same tactic that saved them from the Gladian Guard at the Crimson Field. Lest they all risk losing ground, Mark bid the others to keep going while he and Sonia prepared the same spells they had used back then. The skies grew dark and even from a distance they could hear the villagers cry out in fear as thunder pealed and the bolts of lightning rained down on them. Sonia followed by raising a wall of fire near the front ranks of the enemy.
At first, they thought it might be enough to discourage them entirely, but Mark noticed something very disturbing. For every bolt that struck the enemy's formation, two were deflected by shimmers of light. The villagers had mages in their midst, maybe not strong ones but skilled enough to soften the blow of the Elemental Knights' spells. This did not bode well for them.
Mark and Sonia hurried to rejoin the others. They were sorely disappointed to find that their efforts had only delayed the enemy advance by a matter of minutes. They pushed onward, for they could not afford to stop. Occasionally Mark and Sonia, sometimes with Stefan and Ignatiy's help, would launch new volleys at the villagers, but the effect steadily lessened each time. It only seemed to delay the inevitable, but no one was prepared to give in just yet.
The villagers did not stop for the midday heat, which meant that the group could not stop either. It had been difficult before, when they did not know for certain that they were being pursued, but now it was far more brutal. The sun was roasting them alive, sapping their strength. All the while, the enemy kept on moving forward, seemingly unaffected by the sun's glare and the burning heat.
If being overtaken by the enemy was the worst thing that could happen to them, they were met with the second worse. The frailest among them, Teresa had started to lag behind them. Encouraged by her companions, she had bravely tried to keep up, but the heat soon became too much for her and she collapsed. Setting down Catherine's litter, Mark rushed to the fallen novice, all too aware that the enemy was closing in on them.
"Teresa, Teresa, wake up," he said, tapping on her cheek.
Teresa's eyes opened, but she was barely there.
"Color," she mumbled. "What, what color is my skin?"
"You're bright red," Mark said.
"Hot and dry... to the touch?"
Mark took off his glove and placed the back of his hand on her forehead.
"Yes," he said.
"It's heatstroke," she said. "Very, very dangerous... So... thirsty..."
Mark held up his waterskin for her, but she pushed it away.
"No," she said, struggling to remain coherent. "Don't waste... on me... Too much to do... Cool the body... Shade... Rest... No time... Putting you... in danger..." She weakly gripped Mark's sleeve. "Leave... me..."
"I can't do that," Mark insisted.
Time was of the essence. Mark quickly untied her cincture and pulled off her habit. Out of respect for her modesty, he left her shift on and proceeded to soak her with the entire contents of his waterskin. He then took Teresa's own waterskin and began to slowly give her water. She was too weak at this point to resist his help and drank willingly. Her color improved a little bit, but it was still going to take time for her to make even a partial recovery and the enemy continued its advance.
"Oi gow' 'er," Japser said, wrapping Teresa in his own cloak. "Stey wi' meh, luv," he told her. "Oi owlwehs won'd tah gi' ye ow' o' thah' 'abi', bu' no' loike fis."
Jasper tied Teresa's habit around his waist and then put her on his back. Just as the thief was nodding to Mark for them to go, Ignatiy collapsed. Sonia ran out to harry the enemy with a rain of fireballs, buying time for Mark to tend to his fallen friend. As Mark was checking on Ignatiy, Jasper called out to him.
"Moi gel's askin' i' 'e's 'ot an' droi o' col' an' clammy."
Much unlike Teresa, Ignatiy skin was ghostly pale and his flesh cold and clammy to the touch.
"Cold and clammy," Mark said. "What does it mean?"
"'Eat exowshun, she sehs." The thief paused to listen to the additional directions Teresa was struggling to convey. "No' as bad as 'eah 'eatstrowke. Giv 'im lah's o' wa'er, bu' sloo-loike. She sehs tah loosen ap 'is clowves an' thah' 'e needs res' an' sheyde, too."
Much to Mark's surprise, Adrienne stepped in. "Leave it to me," she said.
With surprising speed, she stripped off Ignatiy's clothes and sprinkled water on him. She then put his cloak back on him and slung him over her shoulder.
"He should come around in a little bit," she said. "Now let's get moving before we have bigger problems."
Now they had three people who could not move for themselves. It made their task all the more difficult. Mark had Giles take over for him carrying Catherine's litter so he could devote himself to slowing down the enemy with his spells. It took too much time and energy to case the large thunderstorm spell, so he opted to loose single lightning bolts at a more frequent rate. Some of them connected and some were deflected, but they succeeded in impeding the enemy's progress, however slight the effect was.
As the sun began to set, a new problem emerged when they noticed a man in the distance ahead of them. He appeared to be the same race as the people chasing them, but his clothes were black instead of white. As soon as he saw the group, the man turned and ran away in roughly the same direction they were heading. Because of the immediate threat posed by the army at their heels, they did not pay much heed to the fleeing man, but perhaps they should have.
The tense pursuit went on for hours, through the night without pause. Teresa and Ignatiy's condition had improved considerably by then, but they were still not fit to walk on their own. Not only were they physically exhausted, but mental fatigue was setting in as well and the few magic wielders could barely cast even the weakest spells, much less the ones that had slowed down the enemy until now. Bit by bit, the distance was closing. At the rate they were going, they would be overtaken within a matter of hours, maybe sooner.
A mix of careful water rationing and indomitable spirit had carried them this far, and the cool of the night gave them a chance to make up for the distance lost during the day. Things seemed to be going well for them, but after several hours, they were met by a cruel twist of fate. Less than a mile away was a group of black-clad villagers about equal in size and armament to the army following them.
The group stopped dead in its tracks and, fortunately, so did their pursuers. On the black side, a man bearing a gold staff capped with the onyx head of a jackal stood before the formation. He was crowned with headdress of black cloth that extended down to his shoulders and wore an ornate gold collar around his neck. He raised a torch and spoke in a loud voice. Carrying a staff with an alabaster eye at its head, a man similarly bedecked on the white side responded in the same fashion.
Though no one in the group could understand the language, they could tell the exchange was not a genial one. The more words crossed, the angrier the speakers and their restless armies became. Tempers flared beyond the breaking point and the two armies charged headlong at each other, paying no heed to the small group of foreigners caught in the middle.
As she had done in the village, Sonia reacted quickly, raising a wall of fire on both sides to offer temporary protection from the two enemy armies. They knew the fire would not be much of a deterrent for the villagers' fanatical charge and they wasted no time fleeing westward. As dangerous as the open desert was, it was better than being trapped between the enemy and the sea.
Although the fighting was pitched and seemingly without any sense of military strategy, the rear ranks on both sides were moving around to flank one another, extending the line of battle in each direction. That included the direction the group was fleeing. Wherever one from either side would meet, a fight ensued. Without looking back, the group kept moving in the hope that all their pursuers would become too preoccupied with each other to worry about them. Any hostility toward the foreigners was clearly secondary to the hatred they bore for each other.
While ancient rivalries roared, the group successfully made its escape. They did not stop until the midday heat was upon them once again and nearly every last one of them was at the point of collapse. They rested but warily, keeping a watchful eye out for the enemy. As near as they could tell, their pursuers had not continued the chase and were probably still fighting. By then Teresa and Ignatiy had recovered enough to move about on their own, but they were still too weak to risk venturing out until the temperature began to drop.
As the sun was about to reach the horizon, the group was on the move again. They had barely started when a huge gust of wind filled with stinging sand knocked them flat on the ground. When the wind passed, it revealed the desert man who was with Brenok and the Dark Knight when Felix was killed. He pointed his sword at them.
"Know this, infidels," he said in Bannish, "I am Tariq ibn Khalid ibn Adil al-Hassani, called the Assassin. That cursed witch-man robbed me of my vengeance when he killed the old Franj, the murderer of my father." The Assassin glared at Mark. "You were at his side when he died. The guilt for my father's blood has passed on to you. Randwulf King wants you alive, but I do not answer to mere men. Come at me, or flee if you are a coward. You will die by my blade either way."
Mark looked to the others. "Let me deal with him," he said. "His challenge must be met man-to-man."
As a fellow Elemental Knight, Sonia understood perfectly, as did all of his companions who adhered to the warrior's code. Mark did not know the details behind Tariq's grudge with Felix, but that did not matter now. The challenge had been issued. He could not decline, nor would he.
The gems in Tariq's sword glowed and another gust of wind swept across the dunes. As soon as it had subsided, Mark rushed forward, turning the magical fight into a duel of swordsmen. To his credit, Tariq was excellent with a sword and matched all of Mark's attacks blow for blow. Their styles were vastly different, Mark trained to use short, controlled movements while Tariq favored broad, sweeping motions that seamlessly flowed together in a dance of his exotic curved blade. At one point their blades locked and as their crossguards grinded against each other, Tariq spoke to the Guardian.
"Why does the infidel king want you alive?" he asked, more to himself than to Mark. "You deserve nothing but death."
The Assassin leaned into his blade, trying to force Mark off balance, but fight would be cut short. Tariq's keen focus was broken when he caught sight of the sun touching the horizon. He broke free of Mark and raised his hand to stop the match.
"We will continue this another time," he said. "In the meantime, you would profit from a little direction." The Assassin pointed his sword due west. "Continue this way and you will find a monument that tests the virtue of warriors. Overcome its trials and you will find your way. If you succeed, I will know you are truly a worthy opponent."
Tariq spun his blade and a swirling wind separated the two. When it had settled, the Assassin was gone. Seeing no trace of him, Mark sheathed his sword and rejoined the group. Though it could easily be a trap, Mark was prepared to accept Tariq's challenge and the others agreed with him. They would see the monument for themselves.